Hearing Voices [JUNGLE FEVER]

From the Chicago Reader (June 21, 1991). — J.R.

JUNGLE FEVER

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Spike Lee

With Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lonette McKee, John Turturro, Frank Vincent, and Anthony Quinn.

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Trusting to luck means listening to voices.  — Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s

Compared to Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever is inspired overreaching, an exciting mess — and conceivably even more important. If the earlier movie somehow marshaled its sprawling elements into a single story in a single setting with a single theme, this one has two settings (Harlem and Bensonhurst), three plot lines, and at least four themes (interracial romance, breaking away from one’s family, crack addiction, and corporate advancement for blacks), all of which are crammed together more willfully than logically, yielding a misshapen story that is neither singular nor plural in focus, but somewhere obscurely in between.

First plot: Flipper (Wesley Snipes), an upscale Afro-American architect with a wife and daughter living in Harlem, starts an affair with his new temp secretary, Angie (Annabella Sciorra), a single Italian American who lives with her working-class father and brothers in Bensonhurst. Flipper tells his best friend Cyrus (Spike Lee), who tells his wife (Veronica Webb), who tells Flipper’s wife, Drew (Lonette McKee), who responds by throwing Flipper out.… Read more »

Final Bow

It’s really sad: Wikipedia had listings for no less than eight different men named John Berry when I originally posted this article, but the film director (1917-1999) wasn’t one of them (fortunately, this is no longer the case); and you won’t find an article about him in Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors, either. I can’t say I knew the man well. but I consider myself fortunate to have spent some time with him in a variety of places — including film festivals in Rotterdam and Vienna, in Paris, and even one enjoyable evening at a jazz disco in Taipei. His accounts of his experiences with Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater -– which included several hours of holding up scenery during the shooting of Too Much Johnson — were priceless.

The following comes from the February 2, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Boesman & Lena ***

Directed by John Berry.

Written by Athol Fugard and Berry.

With Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, and Willie Jonah.

Director John Berry got his big start as an actor in Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles then introduced him to film in 1938 when he hired him as assistant director on a silent slapstick film made to accompany and introduce portions of the stage farce Too Much Johnson.… Read more »

Stuck, But Slippery [STUCK ON YOU]

From the Chicago Reader (December 19, 2003). — J.R.

StuckonYou3

Stuck on You

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly

Written by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Charles B. Wessler, and Bennett Yellin

With Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Eva Mendes, Wen Yann Shih, Cher, Seymour Cassel, Griffin Dunne, and Meryl Streep.


One of my all-time favorite Japanese movies is Yasuzo Masumura’s A Wife Confesses (1961), which I’ve been able to see only once, in Tokyo with a live English translation. It’s a courtroom thriller about a young widow who’s being tried for her part in the death of her abusive older husband while they were mountain climbing, and it hinges on the haunting question of what she was thinking when she made the split-second decision to cut the rope connecting the two of them. She was attached at the other end of the rope to an attractive young man who had business ties to her husband and with whom she was in love, and she had to cut one of the men loose to prevent all three of them from plummeting to their deaths.

The story is a tragic allegory about the interdependence of individuals in Japanese society and how this conflicts with individual choice and desire, and I can’t imagine it being remade in this country, where the rightness of the heroine’s choice would more likely be regarded as self-evident.… Read more »

Old Wave Saved from Drowning (with Sandy Flitterman)

From American Film (November 1981). — J.R.

Old Wave Saved from Drowning

By Sandy Flitterman and Jonathan Rosenbaum

Think of French cinema, and the New Wave springs immediately to mind. This association is hardly accidental. History, it is often said, gets written by the victors. And the victories recounted in the standard film histories — whether they are critical successes or box-office triumphs — are inevitably at the expense of other movies, individuals, or social trends that presumably failed to scale the same heights.

But the New Wave, like other movements in film history, is significant not only for what it gave us — films like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Godard’s Breathless, and Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour — but also for what it took away, for the films it rebelled against, repudiated, buried in the dustbin of history. Now a fascinating new program of forty-six subtitled French films made between 1930 and 1960 helps sketch out the rudiments of just such an alternative history.

This group of films, appropriately entitled “Rediscovering French Film,” has been put together by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in cooperation with the French government and, after premiering in Manhattan this month, is scheduled to travel next year to Washington, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago.… Read more »

Smart Weapons [TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY]

From the Chicago Reader (July 5, 1991). –J.R.

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by James Cameron

Written by Cameron and William Wisher

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Earl Boen, and Joe Morton.

As much a remake as a sequel, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day begins, like The Terminator (1984), with a postnuclear Los Angeles in the year 2029, a world ruled by deadly machines where a few scattered remnants of humanity struggle to survive. Then the film leaps backward in time — not to 1984, when most of The Terminator took place, but to 1997, when the Terminator materializes in virtually the same mythic fashion, crouched naked like a Greek god, before rising and setting about finding the proper attire. This time he enters a bikers’ bar, where he quickly appropriates the clothes, boots, and bike of one tough customer and the shades of another, blithely smashing the skulls of whoever happens to get in his way.

The thrill and beauty of the Terminator, both as a character and as a concept — the ultimate Schwarzenegger role, against which all his other roles must be measured — resides in the excitement of witnessing a brutal, dispassionate machine, a weapon slicing impartially through metal, flesh, or bone en route to its unambiguous goal.… Read more »

The Birth of a Notion

This article appeared in the October 9, 1987 issue of the Chicago Reader, and one good reason for reviving it now is to point up how out of date some of its remarks about Feuillade’s invisibility have become almost 31 years later. Back then, I noted, there was only one book about Feuillade; today I have seven more (all in French) of diverse sizes and scopes, and I’m sure my collection is far from exhaustive. Two full serials, Les vampires (1915) and Judex (1916), are available in the U.S., as is an excellent restoration of the multichaptered Fantômas (1913-1914) on Blu-Ray, so I’m still hoping that Tih Minh (1918), still my favorite, not to mention Barrabas (1919) and even La nouvelle mission de Judex — a 1917 crime serial I’ve never seen which is reputed to be inferior to the others — will also surface eventually.  Also, Kino International has released Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913, with one of its three discs devoted to Feuillade short films made between 1907 and 1913, as well as a documentary “featurette” about him. – J.R.

LES VAMPIRES

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Louis Feuillade

With Musidora, Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Jean Aymé, Delphine Renot, Stacia Napierkowska, Fernand Hermann, Renée Carl, Louis Leubas, Louise Lagrange, Moriss, and Bout de Zan.… Read more »

Cinephilia Down There: A Report on the 65th Melbourne International Film Festival

 Written for Film Comment‘s web site in mid-August 2016. — J.R.

MIFF poster

 

Rouge

Although it isn’t widely recognized, Melbourne’s historical status as the cradle of online film criticism — as signaled by the founding of Screening the Past in 1997, Senses of Cinema in 1999, and Rouge in 2003 — remains a significant part of its film culture, so highly developed and serious that not once, during fourteen festival screenings, did I ever notice any viewers activating their mobiles. It’s equally evident that the pioneering web sites which helped to foster this kind of seriousness were neither accidental nor coincidental. All three were calculated gestures of outreach from a remote outpost to the rest of the world — allowing everyone a glimpse into a literary culture and a branch of cinematic savvy unhampered by the twang of regional accents or the pressure of imminent local releases. And as outreach gestures they no less clearly succeeded and flourished — so well, in fact, that their innovations and energies were quickly absorbed into the Internet mainstream without leaving behind many telltale markers of where they’d been nurtured. (If the Internet sometimes fosters historical blindness, this is especially true of the Internet’s own history.) Above all, the kind of criticism practiced by these three influential sites avoids the thumbs up/thumbs down reflexes of market-driven criticism for the sake of more open-ended discussions, closer to the example offered by Manny Farber (whose reviews could rarely if ever be quoted in ads) than to those of the Siskel-Ebert or Rotten Tomatoes persuasion.… Read more »

Invitation to the Trance [SLEEPWALK]

From the January 29, 1988 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

SLEEPWALK

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Sara Driver

Written by Driver and Lorenzo Mans

With Suzanne Fletcher, Ann Magnuson, Dexter Lee, Steven Chen, Tony Todd, Richard Boes, and Ako.

The French term fantastique — which emcompasses science fiction, comic strips, Surrealism, sword and sorcery tales, and many other forms of fantasy — suggests an attitude toward the imagination that is distinctly different from the Anglo-American model. In our more empirical culture, reams of verbiage are devoted to distinguishing science fiction from fantasy, and legislating certain laws of etiquette to govern both — rules of internal consistency and narrative coherence decreeing that all breaches with recognizable reality stem from the same premises, whether these premises be scientific, purely fanciful, or some mixture of the two.

The French tend to be freer and looser about such matters, which helps to explain why such films as Les visiteurs du soir, Picnic on the Grass, Last Year at Marienbad, Je t’aime, je t’aime, Alphaville, Fahrenheit 451, Celine and Julie Go Boating, and Deathwatch pose to English and American temperaments certain problems that are not posed by The Wizard of Oz, Things to Come, It’s a Wonderful Life, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Exorcist, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner.… Read more »

Judex (1964)

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1993). — J.R.

There’s a world of difference between the natural, “found” surrealism of Louis Feuillade’s lighthearted French serial (1914) and the darker, studied surrealism and campy piety of this 1964 remake by Georges Franju. Yet in Franju’s hands the material has its own magic (and deadpan humor), which makes this one of the better features of his middle period. Judex (Channing Pollack) is a cloaked hero who abducts a villainous banker to prevent the evil Diana (Francine Bergé in black tights) from stealing a fortune from the banker’s virtuous daughter. Some of what Franju finds here is worthy of Cocteau, and as he discovered when he attempted another pastiche of Feuillade’s work in color, black and white is essential to the poetic ambience. With Jacques Jouanneau and Sylva Koscina. In French with subtitles. 104 min.

Read more »

Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy [SEVEN]

From the October 6, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Seven

*** (A must-see)

Directed by David Fincher

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker

With Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Richard Roundtree, R. Lee Ermey, John McGinley, Julie Araskog, Mark Boone Junior, and Kevin Spacey.

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Since when have designer vomit, mannerist rot, and other chic signifiers of gloom, doom, and decline become such comforting mainstays of movies? I’m thinking not only about Hollywood but about Western cinema generally. What brings on all the driving, dirty rain in Satantango (Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black comedy, which showed at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival) as well as in Seven, a stylish and affecting (albeit gory) metaphysical serial-killer movie? The facile solution would be to trace the gloom back to Blade Runner, film noir, maybe even to Prague school surrealism, though this would omit the Calvinist/expressionist vision of urban filth and the post-Vietnam psychopathology of Taxi Driver. In point of fact, it’s much more important to figure out the reasons for the strange allure of this grim sensibility than to worry pedantically about where it came from.

I’d ascribe at least part of this taste to the current inability to believe in or try to effect political change — a form of paralysis that in America is related to an incapacity to accept that we’re no longer number one.… Read more »

Both Sides Now [THE CEREMONY]

Claude Chabrol died at the age of eighty, and I’d like to celebrate his work by focusing on what I regard as probably the greatest and most masterful of his later films, made in 1995 but released in the U.S. two years later. This review, which was later used as liner notes for the film’s American DVD, ran in the Chicago Reader on February 14, 1997. — J.R.

The Ceremony

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Claude Chabrol

Written by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff

With Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Virginie Ledoyen, and Valentin Merlet.

It’s odd that Claude Chabrol is the most neglected filmmaker of the French New Wave today, at least in this country, because he started out as the most commercial and has turned out to be the most prolific, with the possible exception of Jean-Luc Godard. I’ve seen 33 of his 46 features, but nothing in over a quarter of a century that’s quite as good as La cérémonie, an adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgement in Stone.

Born in 1930, about six months ahead of Godard, Chabrol came from a family of pharmacists (as did Jacques Rivette). At the age of 17 he met François Truffaut at a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and ten years later he collaborated with Eric Rohmer on the first critical study of Hitchcock to appear anywhere.… Read more »

Review of FOR THE LOVE OF CINEMA

From the Spring 2018 issue of Cineaste. — J.R.

for-the-love-of-cinema-teaching-our-passion-in-and-outside-the-classroom

For the Love of Cinema:                                                                                  Teaching Our Passion In and Outside the Classroom.                               Edited by Rashna Wadia Richards and David T. Johnson.                           Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017. 244 pp., illus. Hardcover: $80.00 and Paperback: $32.00.

 

As a cinephile who periodically teaches film courses, I might be considered an ideal reader of this collection of essays, but in fact I’m not. In order to fully qualify, I’d also have to be an academic. Being a confirmed outsider to that world, however, without the sort of degrees to ensure my survival there, I have to approach this volume more as a scavenger, looking for what I think I can use, rather than as a member of the particular community that this book addresses, someone speaking their language and sharing their issues. More specifically, my best and most recent teaching experience has been four two-week stints at Béla Tarr’s Film Factory between 2013 and 2015, when the academic Sarajevo Film Academy still allowed it to function and before it withdrew its financial support for a school, as well as a training ground and production facility for young filmmakers. At the Film Factory, cinephilia was most often a given rather than a desired condition to be generated or propagated, and films more than grades or diplomas were the desired objectives.… Read more »

Real Horror Shows [EYES WITHOUT A FACE & THE KINGDOM]

From the Chicago Reader (November 24, 1995). — J.R.

Eyes Without a Face

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Georges Franju

Written by Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, Pierre Gascar, and Franju

With Edith Scob, Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Béatrice Altariba, François Guerin, Alexandre Rignault, and Claude Brasseur.

The Kingdom

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Lars von Trier and Morten Arnfred

Written by von Trier, Niels Vorsel, and Tomas Gislason

With Ernst Hugo Jaregard, Kirsten Rolffes, Ghita Norby, Soren Pilmark, Holger Juul Hansen, Annevig Schelde Ebbe, Jens Okking, Otto Brandenburg, Baard Owe, and Birgitte Raabjerg.

They’re both arty European fantasy meditations on the medical profession — that’s about all that Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959) and Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom (1993) have in common, apart from the fact that they’re both opening here the day after Thanksgiving. The differences between them are much more instructive. Franju’s Les yeux sans visage is a poetic, compact (88 minutes) black-and-white French horror picture about skin grafting that premiered inauspiciously in the United States 32 years ago in a dubbed and reportedly mangled version known as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus; happily, Facets Multimedia is showing it in its original form and subtitled.… Read more »

Glimpse of a Rare Bird [on Boris Barnet] (upgraded)

I can very happily report that since I first published this article, in the February 6, 2004 Chicago Reader, a few Barnet films have become available on DVD, including the two I wrote about, and a few more are reportedly on the way from Ruscico, a Russian label that has been issuing subtitled DVDs that I wrote about here. Earlier, Image Entertainment brought out Outskirts and The Girl with the Hatbox on a single DVD, and in France, www.bachfilms.com released both By the Bluest of Seas (under its French title, Au bord de la mer bleue), which Ruscico has subsequently released as well, and the 1943 A Good Lad/Men of Novgorod (again, under its French title, Un brave garçon). More recently, I showed clips from Okraina as well as other early Russian talkies (Deserter and Enthusiasm) in a course, “The First Transition: World Cinema in the 30s”, Kevin Lee has made a wonderful video about By the Bluest of Seas with a rapturous critical commentary written by Nicole Brenez, and in the summer of 2011, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna presented a comprehensive Barnet retrospective, most of which I was able to attend.

Recently reseeing By the Bluest of Seas at the Arsenal in Berlin, as part of a program devoted to Frieda Grafe’s favorite films, I was more blown away than ever, and it struck me that the film could be viewed in some ways as an erotic view of collectivism and socialism, with the sea serving as a perfect emotional metaphor — and a perfect sort of reply to what Luc Moullet maintained in his review of Jet Pilot, which implied that eroticism, as in that film and The Fountainhead, was always tied in some fashion to right-wing thinking.… Read more »

My Favorite Films/Texts/Things (1976) (further upgraded for reposting)

From the November-December 1976 Film Comment and exhumed now mainly as a telling time capsule of this period in the world of English film criticism. I’m still indebted to Laura Mulvey for introducing me to Zoo, or Letters Not About Love in her own list, which has subsequently become a touchstone for me.

For illustrations, I’ve selected the first film cited in each list whenever possible, even when there’s no particular significance to the order (when I couldn’t come up with one for The Nightcleaners, at least until Ehsan Khoshbakht — see below — furnished me with production stills or framegrabs, I accorded the late Claire Johnston two others)….Because of a scanning error and oversight, I originally had to omit two entries, those of David Pirie and Paul Willemen, which are now included. In the remaining 27, I’ve corrected a few typos for the first time, and accidentally introduced a few others, but thanks to the generous efforts of my good friend and best proofreader, Ehsan Khoshbakht, on December 4, 2014 (as well as Adrian Martin three days later, who caught a few more glitches), these are now corrected, and five additional illustrations (again, courtesy of Ehsan) have been added.Read more »